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Gone Baby Gone

Miramax // R // February 12, 2008
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 19, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) heard about the kidnapping of a four year old down the road the same way most of the folks in their dingy Boston neighborhood did -- on the news. Y'know, a gray-haired reporter holds out a microphone as relatives weep in the front yard, pleading for her safe return in between sobs. Cut back to a couple of anchormen in the studio sympathetically shaking their heads at how tragic this is, pause for a beat, and then turn to Nick with for your three day Accuweather forecast. It's a spectacle for their neighbors to stare at mindlessly or butt their heads in just enough to make themselves feel important until the news cameras are distracted by whatever the next exploitable tragedy is. Patrick and Angie react the same way most people would -- mutter how awful it is before mashing the power button on the remote and dozing off to sleep.

A knock at the door startles them early the next morning. It's the aunt and uncle of Amanda McCready, begging with an outstretched checkbook in hand for Patrick and Angie to augment the official investigation into their young niece's disappearance. Patrick practically tries to talk them out of it; he and his girlfriend Angie may be private detectives, but they're not exactly Hart to Hart, barely scraping by tracking down schlubs who skip out on their jet skis payments and the like. Still, Patrick grew up in this neighborhood. He knows these people, and maybe one of 'em might tell him something they wouldn't want to share with the cops. Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) rolls his eyes at these baby-faced detectives who are way out of their depth, but he's obligated to lend them a hand, pawning them off to two of the lead detectives on the case (Ed Harris and John Ashton).

Gone Baby Gone starts off as a procedural. Patrick leverages his old friendships with the stickier underbelly of Beantown, nearly getting his skull smashed in but still managing to scrape up enough about Amanda's skeevy, cokehole of a mother to give the detectives a push in a different direction. The movie's too honest to putter around the usual clich├ęs. These upstarts don't crack the case themselves; Patrick and Angie are in way over their heads, but they're clever and dogged enough to be indispensable to the investigation. Most of the cops in these sorts of movies are either corrupt, disinterested, or...well, target practice, but Poole and Bressant know what they're doing and clearly want Amanda to turn up safe and sound as much as anyone.

Gone Baby Gone caught a lot of attention during its limited theatrical run because it marked Ben Affleck's first time behind the camera, but don't shrug this off as some sort of vanity project. Affleck directs the film with a remarkable amount of skill and confidence, perhaps fueled by his intensely close connection to the material, having grown up in Boston and being the parent of a young child himself. It's an exceptional film in every way, propelled by an honesty and authenticity that's rarely captured on-screen. So much of the character of Gone Baby Gone is owed to shooting on location in Dorchester, the largest and most diverse of Boston's neighborhoods. It's inexorably a Boston film -- swapping out the setting would've made for an unrecognizably different movie -- and it's brimming with local color, from the thick accents to the off-kilter slang to a neighborhood overflowing with the sort of people you just can't cast out of a catalogue of extras. Gone Baby Gone is permeated by the sense of a real world inhabited by real people, not headshots or meticulously produced decay on a soundstage.

The memory of Gone Baby Gone lingers on well after the end credits have finished their upward crawl. This isn't a movie about lobbing out a bunch of plot twists or shameless red herrings to keep the audience off-guard; Gone Baby Gone is about the illusion of moral certainty. It's about struggling with questions in which what's wrong and what's right attack from two completely different directions, and neither point of view can be dismissed. It's about knowing that sometimes you have to make a choice, regardless whether or not you have any idea if your decision will prove to be right in the end. These are the sorts of fundamental questions that drive people in life, and it's a testament to the movie's screenwriters, cast, and director that Gone Baby Gone approaches them with such skill and respect. The film doesn't pretend that there's some overly simplistic answer, instead closing with an ambiguous shot that's simple, quiet, and still deeply resonant.

One of Gone Baby Gone's greatest strengths is its cast. After spending more than a decade toiling as a character actor, Casey Affleck makes his first move into a lead role, and his casting can't be dismissed as a freshman director looking out for his kid brother. 2007 was a banner year for Affleck, earning his first Academy Award nomination for his work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and he's every bit as extraordinary in this film as well. He brings to Patrick an understated intelligence, quiet confidence, and explosive ferocity. There's a scene in Gone Baby Gone's unconventional second act as Patrick is still reeling from the chaos that closed out its first hour, charging headfirst into a sequence as grim and emotionally devastating as anything I've seen in the past year, and its impact is owed entirely to his skills as an actor.

It goes without saying that seasoned, intense actors like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman -- the latter breaking away from the wise old man typecasting -- are fantastic. I have to admit to not being that familiar with Amy Ryan, who plays Amanda's drug-addled, almost completely indifferent mother. It's a turn that deservedly earned her an Academy Award nomination, deftly striking an impossible balance. Helene is hardened, repulsive cancer of a woman who couldn't give two shits about her daughter or anything else that stands in the way of her next high, and Ryan somehow, inexplicably, manages to unearth some spark of humanity in her. It's an intriguing angle for a "kid in danger" story; on one hand, Patrick and Angie don't want to find Amanda's corpse rotting in a dumpster in a back alley somewhere, but they can't fathom bringing an innocent, wide-eyed tyke back home to that. Again, this is too honest a movie to let Helene see the error in her ways between streams of tears. It's a complex world, and she's a complex character.

Gone Baby Gone does everything right. It's a hell of a detective story in its own right, propelled by enough gunplay and unexpected twists and turns to work strictly as escapist entertainment. At the same time, it's a smart and remarkably honest film, riddled with moral questions that challenge the notions of what's right without pretending it has any clean, convenient answers. Gone Baby Gone is emotionally wrenching without reveling in any melodrama or syrupy strings, earning its impact from a fantastic script, sure-handed direction, and a phenomenal cast. Highly Recommended.

Video: Gone Baby Gone generally looks wonderful on Blu-ray, in keeping with the stratospheric standards Disney and Miramax set for their high definition releases. The 1.85:1 AVC encode is brimming with fine detail, startlingly revealing when the camera closes in tight on the cast but maintaining a dazzling level of clarity in even its most expansive shots. The smooth gradients in light and color are also frequently eye-catching, something a standard definition DVD could never hope to reproduce.

Director Ben Affleck mentions in his audio commentary that he took some of his visual cues from the films of the '70s, and the cinematography leans more towards subdued, natural hues and a slightly grainy texture. There are stretches where the image quality wavers, but that almost certainly dates back to the original photography. A handful of moments have a softer, rougher hewn look to them, with one of Gone Baby Gone's most outstanding moments -- a confession from Bressant that sets up the third act of the movie and introduces a key moral dilemma -- taking on an excessively grainy, noisy appearance. Gone Baby Gone may not sparkle with the glossy sheen of a more lavish studio production, but that seems to be at least to an extent a deliberate part of the movie's gritty aesthetic, a style that this Blu-ray disc aims to reproduce rather than mask away.

Audio: Gone Baby Gone is bolstered by a 24-bit, 5.1 PCM soundtrack. The mix squarely places its focus front and center, in keeping with the dialogue-driven nature of the film, although the other speakers are used extensively to flesh out a strong sense of ambiance. More aggressive action is infrequent, but those rare moments of gunplay do sound exceptional and take full advantage of all of the channels at the soundtrack's disposal. The mix boasts an expansive dynamic range, and as heated as several of the shouting matches can get, Gone Baby Gone's dialogue is never marred by any clipping or distortion. Much of the punchy low-end is owed to the score and various bits of music, most memorably some thumping hip-hop blaring from one of Patrick's pals' tricked-out SUV. The audio's not showcase material, no, but it suits the film perfectly, and Disney and Miramax's commitment to such high bitrate, uncompressed soundtracks continues to be appreciated.

Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and subtitle streams are also offered in English, French, and Spanish.

Extras: The first of the disc's extras is an audio commentary with co-writer Aaron Stockard and writer/director Ben Affleck. It's a fairly subdued and serious discussion -- this isn't the quippy Affleck that's ridden shotgun on so many of Kevin Smith's commentaries -- but it's a solid track. Having shepherded Gone Baby Gone as a film from the beginning, Affleck is able to cast an extremely wide net: the difficulty in introducing characters already well-established in the original series of novels, digital effects shots as grand as an artificial lake and as mundane as painted-on bangs, spotting The Jerry Springer Show on entirely too many TVs while scouting for locations, and shaping the '70s urban thriller-inspired palette. In between noting some of the happy accidents caught on film as cameras rolled throughout the neighborhood, Affleck and Stockard discuss how they adapted the unconventional structure of the book as well as what they'd hoped to provoke in Gone Baby Gone's thoughtful final moments. This commentary isn't as engaging as what Affleck normally turns out, but it's a reasonably strong effort and a worthwhile listen.

Affleck and Stockard also provide optional commentary for 17 minutes' worth of deleted scenes. Michelle Monaghan gets quite a bit more screentime, including a more expository alternate introduction that better fleshes out Angie and Patrick's professional and personal relationships, a brief glimpse into Angie's troubled childhood, and a quick love scene. Two other scenes include a marginally different alternate ending and a longer version of one key dramatic sequence that sees Patrick diving into a lake behind Angie. The optional commentary is more insightful than usual, delving into what these scenes were meant to accomplish rather than the usual rote notes about pacing. This additional footage is the only standard definition material on the set, letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen.

"Going Home: Behind the Scenes with Ben Affleck" (7 min.) is the first of the disc's two high-def featurettes. Its focus is primarily on Affleck stepping behind the camera to direct for the first time -- careful to note that the project wasn't developed with that in mind -- as well as the attention paid to capturing the distinctive flavor of his old stomping grounds.

"Capturing Authenticity: Casting Gone Baby Gone" (9 min.) continues with that attention to detail, noting how many actual people from the neighborhood were brought in as extras rather than bus in truckloads of the usual polished, impossibly pretty Hollywood set. That's not as much the focus of this featurette as its title might suggest, though, devoting most of its time to the film's more familiar faces. All of the main actors, including Michelle Monaghan, Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, John Ashton, and Morgan Freeman, are given a chance to briefly discuss their approaches to the material. Affleck naturally gets more attention than most, not only because he's the driving force of the film but because he is, of course, the director's kid brother. The upsides and potential stumbling blocks of their intensely personal connection are discussed as well.

Both featurettes are fine but come across as somewhat cursory looks into the making of the film. Also included are high definition trailers for No Country for Old Men, Dan in Real Life, and Becoming Jane.

Conclusion: I loved Gone Baby Gone. As a gritty detective story, it's taut and suspenseful enough to recommend on those merits alone, helmed by a confident first-time director working with a phenomenal cast and a hell of a script. What elevates this film into something truly extraordinary is its conviction and honesty -- the fact that it's ultimately not about a search for a missing four year old but about moral certainty and the impossibility in determining what's truly right. Powerful, resonant, and just an exceptionally well-crafted film, this Blu-ray release of Gone Baby Gone comes Highly Recommended.

The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.
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